EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Brief lapses doom Phoenix Suns in loss to Dallas Mavericks

Feb 22, 2024, 8:26 PM

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns drives inside as  Kyrie Irving #11 of the Dallas Mavericks defe...

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns drives inside as Kyrie Irving #11 of the Dallas Mavericks defends in the first half at American Airlines Center on February 22, 2024 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

The Phoenix Suns played well enough in spurts to win on Thursday but lacked a full and focused effort to beat the Dallas Mavericks in a 123-113 loss.

Dallas’ star duo of Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving bested Phoenix’s. Doncic’s 41 points on 14-of-27 shooting were accompanied by Irving’s 11-of-18 shooting for 29 points. Doncic also racked up nine rebounds, 11 assists and four steals. Devin Booker’s 35 points (13-for-21), five rebounds, eight assists and four turnovers led the Suns while Kevin Durant’s 9-of-23 mark for 23 points with five rebounds, an assist and five turnovers missed the mark.

The Mavericks’ 29 points off 16 Suns turnovers were a factor as well.

Three surges by Dallas in the last two quarters that were more so poor stretches by Phoenix decided the game.

A 15-0 Mavericks run to begin the second half epitomized the margins Phoenix has to improve within to truly become a great team. Doncic nailed three of his six triples on unguardable step-backs. He set up P.J. Washington, a below average shooter, for another. All of those are possessions the Suns can accept but they’ve got to make up for it in other ways, and the offensive end included a pair of turnovers and a missed layup.

After that, Doncic launched a 30-footer early on the shot clock as a heat check, a bailout for Phoenix to reset, only for the Suns to not grab the rebound and for that to lead to an open Josh Green 3 to put Dallas ahead by a dozen.

With those three minutes not going great for starting center Jusuf Nurkic, Suns head coach Frank Vogel smashed the emergency glass early, pulling Nurkic for Royce O’Neale. It’s the type of mid-game adjustment and rotation choice the Suns should focus on developing more over the next two months so it becomes more natural. Decisions like Thursday’s will help.

Dallas is the perfect team to do this against. It has size but not the type that will punish a smaller team, doesn’t have the good shooters Phoenix does to trade open 3s in spaced-out basketball built around the stars and lacks on-ball juice defensively to contain high-level scorers. The Mavericks have rightfully been thought of as a bad matchup for the Suns the last two years but if Phoenix was to really embrace small ball, it could turn the tables quickly.

All of these themes played out over an immediate 17-5 run led by Booker, who didn’t take a shot in the second quarter because of double-teams but suddenly had more space to maneuver. Dallas, however, found a 9-0 spurt right after.

Nurkic returned later in the quarter for two minutes, only for Phoenix to go back to a small group at the start of the fourth quarter and remain that way the rest of the night.

Phoenix was +7 without Booker in the first half but this group headed by Durant struggled this go-around. The offense had a few dwindling possessions, with Durant’s cadence slowing things down a bit too much. It was an 8-2 advantage to Dallas.

That’s why Bradley Beal is so important for that segment of the game but he remains out due to tightness in his left hamstring. He wasn’t able to progress enough over the All-Star break to avoid nothing more than a one-game absence (that was essentially two after he played under five minutes when he got injured). Vogel also said Beal is unlikely to play in the second game of a back-to-back on Friday.

Booker could only get 2:25 of rest before coming in thanks to just two Phoenix points over that time. With Dallas now up 11, it put the Suns in a position requiring stops. They wouldn’t muster two in a row until the 3:12 mark on the clock while trailing by 12. Too late.

Add up those Dallas runs in the second half and it was a 32-2 edge in a combined game time of just 7:03.

Eric Gordon scored 16 points starting in place of Beal. He was the only supporting cast member to make a legitimate impact. Despite how often Phoenix spent the game going small, new addition Thaddeus Young did not play, presumably because of how recent his arrival was.

Unless one of the top four teams in the Western Conference slows down and the Suns (33-23) go on an absolute tear to end the year, they are likely left fighting for two spots above the play-in amongst five different squads. That makes tiebreakers with those teams essential. Thursday’s cemented a 3-2 season series edge to Dallas (33-23).

As for the four others, Phoenix has already lost the tiebreaker to the Los Angeles Lakers (1-3) and owns it over the Golden State Warriors (3-1). Still left to be determined is a winner-take-all fixture with the Sacramento Kings (2-2) similar to Thursday and two contests remaining with the New Orleans Pelicans (1-0).

Durant reached 40 minutes and it was 39 for Booker. There will be a few regular season games that still warrant minute totals that high but Phoenix has to be cautious with the start of the postseason now visible in the distance. It plays tomorrow in Houston and it doesn’t sound like Beal will play.

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